Putin’s Ukrainian History Lesson

by Cyril Babeev

Illustration by Cyril Babeev. Photo credit: Kremlin Press Office

On Monday, 21 February, as most people in Moscow were finishing their dinners, barely waking up the next day in Vladivostok, and probably sleeping in other major Russian cities, Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was addressing the nation.  

In his speech, broadcast on national television and lasting 55 minutes and 56 seconds, Putin announced his decision to recognise the independence of the two Russia-backed separatist territories, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. He also used this moment to present his interpretation of Ukrainian modern history to Russians, Ukranians, and the rest of the world, and share his view of Russia’s role within it.

In this “history lesson,” which comprised the first eight minutes of his address, Putin attempted to make the case for the historic inseparability of the Ukrainian nation from the Russian state, and voice his disagreements with the Soviet decisions that contributed to the creation of contemporary Ukraine. These arguments were meant to explain why, after a day of rushed consultations with his security council, the Russian president decided to recognise the independence of the two breakaway territories located in the Donbass region. 

Putin’s emphasis on historical relationships may seem unusual, but it is part of a discourse—if not obsession—that is particularly popular in Russian pro-government circles. As seen in numerous articles published by the Russian news agency TASS in the last two years, the “threat of rewriting history” is constantly on the minds and tongues of officials at all levels of Putin’s government. 

In order to counter this perceived menace and set the record straight, Putin personally enjoys giving “corrective” lessons on various episodes from Russian and Soviet history, occasionally requiring “small corrections” from a school student to get his facts right.      

Of course, Putin’s version of Russo-Ukrainian history is distorted by his need to justify his political actions. In his Monday speech, he claimed that: 

“Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians. This was the case before the 17th century, when a portion of this territory rejoined the Russian state, and after.” 

This sweeping historical account raises questions about the territorial and temporal scope of the Russian nation in the contemporary political imagination. Putin’s demarcation of “Russian land” seems vague, but his reference to the 17th century invokes the 1667 Truce of Andrusovo, a key treaty that asserted Russian control over Kyiv and the left-bank Ukraine, a historic centre of Orthodox Christianity since the ruler of Kievan Rus’, Vladimir the Great, began converting the population in 988. 

Vladimir the Great statue in Moscow, November 4, 2016

While Putin’s reference to the Truce of Andrusovo would not register with the majority of the general population (either domestic or foreign), it does provide a real, historical grounding that fuses Orthdox Christian religion—a political interest that Putin tries to appease—with Russia’s historical domain.

Later in the speech, Putin jumped forward to the early 20th century:  

“So, I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia—by separating, severing what is historically Russian land. Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought.”

In this statement, Putin elides important episodes in Russian history and credits “Bolshevik, Communist Russia”—an oversimplified, abstract entity—with the creation of modern Ukraine. 

Following the 1917 February Revolution, what had historically been the territory of the Russian Empire fragmented, leading to parts of the empire establishing themselves as autonomous republics, including the Ukrainian People’s Republic (1917–1920), which was recognised by Alexander Kerensky’s Russian Provisional Government. Putin, however, sees Vladimir Lenin and his government as the actual authors of Ukraine as we know it.

Alexander Kerensky in September 1917. A map can be seen in the background with the borders of Volyn, Kiev, Kursk, Podolsk, Poltava, Kharkov, and Chernihiv provinces highlighted.

In Putin’s opinion, “Lenin and his associates” created the Ukrainian state in a way that was particularly “harsh on Russia.” Perhaps with this phrase he alludes to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that was signed in early 1918 between the new Bolshevik government and the Central Powers, which served to end Soviet participation in World War I. Under the terms of the treaty, the Ukrainian People’s Republic became one of the neutral buffer states located between the Central Powers’ territories and the Soviet border.

Putin’s portrayal of the origin of the Ukrainian state suggests that it was only created by Lenin for the sake of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. This version of events does not acknowledge the will of Ukrainian people who formed the Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1917—almost a year before the treaty was signed. 

1918 postcard depicting the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The inscription reads, “Peace with Ukraine. The final session in the night from February 9th to 10th, in which the peace protocol was signed.”

Putin also ignores the gruesome identity struggle experienced by the Ukrainian nation during the four-year-long Ukrainian War of Independence that lasted from 1917 to 1921. Fought between the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic which was created after the October Revolution, this was a conflict to determine Ukraine’s future as either part of the Soviet Union or an independent state.

Putin continued his “history lesson” by implicating Stalin in the territorial expansion of Ukraine:

“Then, both before and after the Great Patriotic War, Stalin incorporated [Ukraine] in the USSR and transferred to Ukraine some lands that previously belonged to Poland, Romania and Hungary.” 

What Putin describes as “incorporations and transfers of lands” were in fact annexations of Eastern European territories conducted by the USSR during World War II. Annexations that happened before 1941—when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union—were directly connected to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. 

Signed between the Soviets and Nazi Germany in Moscow on 23 August, the pact went beyond the general declarations of peace between the two countries. Secret clauses divided Eastern Europe into Soviet and German “spheres of influence” and paved the way for the invasion of Poland that sparked the Second World War.

 A German and a Soviet officer shaking hands at the end of the invasion of Poland, September 1939.

On 17 September 1939, the Soviet Army—under the pretext of “national liberation of Ukrainians and Belarusians”—moved into and annexed the eastern provinces of Poland. The agreement permitted Soviet forces to overtake other regions that were assigned to the Soviet “sphere of influence.” By 4 July 1940, the Soviet Union took control over Bessarabia, Northern Bukovina, and the Hertsa region after threatening Romania with military action.

In October 1944, now on the side of the Allies, the USSR expelled German and Hungarian forces that occupied the region of Carpathian Ruthenia. However, as the war ended, the Soviets refused to return Carpathian Ruthenia to Czechoslovakia and instead pressured the Czechoslovak government to cede the region.

Soviet occupation of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, July 4, 1940

Notably, Putin does not mention the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or Soviet annexations in his speech. Instead, he presents these events as ambiguous land “transfers” connected to World War II. While admitting that these lands belonged to Poland, Romania, and Hungary, Putin has no sympathy for these countries’ losses.

He fails to acknowledge that these lands were incorporated into Ukrainian territory as part of the Soviet expansionist project and not as gestures of goodwill that he presents them as. In the process, Putin sweeps a shameful chapter of Soviet history under the rug in which the Soviet Union collaborated with Nazi Germany to carve up Eastern Europe.

The Russian president also brought up Khrushchev’s role in expanding Ukraine through the addition of Crimea:

In the process, he [Stalin] gave Poland part of what was traditionally German land as compensation, and in 1954, Khrushchev took Crimea away from Russia for some reason and also gave it to Ukraine. In effect, this is how the territory of modern Ukraine was formed.”

Putin rightly states that Poland was indeed granted eastern German territories as part of the Yalta Conference agreement. It is also true that the rationale behind Nikita Khrushchev’s 1954 transfer of the Crimean Peninsula to the Ukrainian SSR lacks a concrete explanation. Popular theories regarding the decision to incorporate Crimea into the Ukrainian territories include a noble gesture to commemorate the 300th anniversary of reunification of Ukraine with Russia, Khrushchev’s need to secure the Ukrainian SSR’s support in his power struggle against other Soviet leaders, and his great personal affection towards Ukraine.

Continuing his speech, Putin again emphasised Lenin’s supposed role in the creation of modern Ukraine and the separation of the Donbass region from Russian territory:                     

“Actually, as I have already said, Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called ‘Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.’ He was its creator and architect. This is fully and comprehensively corroborated by archival documents, including Lenin’s harsh instructions regarding Donbass, which was actually shoved into Ukraine.” 

Putin reiterates his position that the contemporary Ukrainian state is an artificial creation resulting from early Soviet policies under Lenin’s personal directive. By attributing the entirety of Ukrainian statehood to Lenin’s whim and political miscalculation, Putin attempts to question the legitimacy of its existence. 

By calling the country “Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine,” Putin presents the Ukrainian people as devoid of voice, agency, or will for self-determination, who obediently accept the borders and forms of government given to them. In doing so, Putin overlooks the decades of the Ukrainian national revival movement that preceded Lenin and his ideas.

Originating in the late 18th century, the national revival movement was responsible for the creation of modern Ukrainian cultural identity, and was represented by the poetry of Taras Shevchenko, writings of Nikolay Kostomarov, and music of Mykola Lysenko. Their works would later influence those who helped establish the independent Ukrainian state after the Russian Revolution—Volodymyr Vynnychenko, the first Prime Minister of Ukraine, and Mykhailo Hrushevsky, the first President of the Central Council of Ukraine.

Founders of the Ukrainian Academy of Arts (from left to right): Georgy Narbut, Vasyl Krychevsky, Mykhailo Boychuk. Seated: Abram Manevych, Oleksandr Murashko, Fedir Krychevsky, Mykhailo Hrushevsky, Ivan Steshenko, Mykola Burachek

Lenin did indeed emphasise the importance of Donbass’ resources to the rest of the country, as indicated by his quote that now adorns a monument in his honour in Donetsk: “Donbass is not an accidental region, but it is a region without which socialist construction will remain a simple, good wish.” But Putin’s suggestion that the region was simply “shoved into Ukraine” does not fit with the messier history of the region in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. 

Throughout the Ukrainian War of Independence, Donbass was changing hands between the Russian SFSR and the Ukrainian People’s Republic. For a short period of time, it even established itself as an independent state—the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic. This episode from the Ukrainian War of Independence reveals that Donbass’ national struggle between Ukrainian and Russian identities is more complex than Putin wishes to admit.

To conclude his comments on Lenin’s role in the origins of the Ukrainian state, Putin remarked on the current relationship the country has with Lenin and communism:

“And today the ‘grateful progeny’ has overturned monuments to Lenin in Ukraine. They call it decommunization.”

The “decommunization” to which Putin refers consists of four bills passed by the Ukrainian government in 2015. These laws effectively banned any commmunist symbols or parties and resulted in the toppling of numerous Soviet statues—primarily depicting Lenin. 

Putin accentuates his belief that the Ukrainian people did not deserve the land that was, in his opinion, given to them by Lenin. He believes that Ukraine is meant to be grateful to Lenin for its very existence and sees the Ukrainian decommunization laws as a sign of thanklessness.

Protesters place their feet on the head of an overthrown Lenin monument, December 8, 2013. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov

The laws have been met with criticism from the European community as they violated democratic standards by outlawing any communist party from standing in elections and emphasised questionable historical figures that were implicated in atrocities. However, the Russian government and media appeared to interpret decommunization laws as Ukraine choosing a path towards Nazism and rewriting of World War II history.

This point from Putin’s Monday “history lesson” made a return a few days later as Putin set out to denazify and demilitarise Ukraine.     

On Thursday, 24 February, as most people in Moscow were fast asleep after celebrating the Defender of the Fatherland Day, going to work in Vladivostok, and attempting to prevent conflict at the UN Security Council in New York, Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was addressing the nation—again.

By announcing a “special military operation”—a war—against Ukraine, Putin was no longer teaching history. This time, he was writing it himself.

Cyril Babeev is the founder of the Gallery of Contemporary Illustration and the communications officer at John Wesley’s New Room. He is interested in how people remember others and the world around them.

Categories: Europe & Russia